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Arsenic Victims
   Arsenic : A tragedy for Millions  

Arsenic poisoning has emerged as a fresh blow to Bangladesh, a country of 130 million population, known as a land of frequent natural calamities. Recent surveys showed that about 80 million people of the country are living under the risk of Arsenic poisoning as the groundwater of a vast region contaminated with Arsenic the Arsenic pollution is not only causing serious health hazard to the people, but also affecting the environment and creating social problems.

Arsenic poisoning was first detected in Bangladesh in 1993 by the Department of Public Health Engineering (DPHE). But the fact remained behind the screen till 1996. According to the latest surveys conducted at both Government levels, at least 53 out of the total 64 districts of Bangladesh are affected with Arsenic pollution.

More than 2 million Tube-wells are presently being used as the source of drinking water in Bangladesh. Out of those, only 50,000 have so far been brought under investigation by various Government and non-Government agencies. The rest are still beyond the survey. The actual picture of the severity of Arsenic pollution is yet to be revealed as the entire country could not be surveyed till now.

The Arsenic poisoning has mainly been detected through testing samples of tube-well water and human tissues-hair, nail, skin and urine. Regular intake of Arsenic at higher level through food and drinking water causes various diseases, especially skin diseases. Arsenic causes both physical and intellectual damage to the human beings.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has fixed a recommended value at 0.01 milligram Arsenic for per liter of water. It also set a maximum permissible limit of 0.05 mg/l. Under the survey, conducted by the DCH and SOES, tube-well water of suspected areas of Bangladesh were tested in laboratory. It is matter of great concern that in many cases the Arsenic concentration in the Groundwater crosses the WHO recommended value and maximum permissible limit.

The West Bengal State of India, which surrounds Bangladesh's west and north border, is also an Arsenic-affected zone because of the geological similarity. But the situation in Bangladesh is more alarming compared to West Bengal, according to experts. In West Bengal, SOES tested water samples of 40000 tube-wells in the affected area and found 58 tube -wells containing above 1.0-milligram Arsenic in per liter of water. On the other hand, some 6101 tube-wells were examined in the affected areas of Bangladesh by DCH-SOES and 75 tube-wells were found with such a high level of Arsenic concentration. Luxmipur, Nawabganj and Faridpur districts were identified as the most affected areas of the country where a large number of people have already been affected with various diseases caused by Arsenic poisoning.

The Arsenic pollution has been creating serious social problems for the affected people. They virtually become isolated from the society as nobody want to keep any social contact with them. Nobody wants to marry any Arsenic affected made of female. Some affected housewives were even divorced by their husbands. Affected school children become victims of avoidance by their teachers and classmates and are not allowed to attend their classes. Due to ignorance, the villagers consider Arsenical diseases as the curse of nature. They do not allow the Arsenic patients at social functions. The Arsenic affected villages also become isolated zone.

After conducting extensive surveys and research in the affected areas. Experts suggested for undertaking motive awareness building program on Arsenic pollution, reducing use of groundwater for drinking purpose and increasing the use of safe surface water to avert diseases caused by Arsenic poisoning. They identified indiscriminate withdrawal of groundwater as of the major causes of Arsenic pollution and suggested for finding out alternative source of safe drinking water. Regular testing of tube-well water at intervals and examination of suspected patients at the affected areas are also included in their suggestions. A government-NGO concerted effort is essential to combat the problem, they observe, Moreover, Bangladesh has not enough resources to implement such a huge task. The country does not have any modern laboratory capable to test water and examine the samples collected from Arsenic patients. Without continues assistance from the donor community and international organizations, it is impossible for the country to resolve the problem alone.

Arsenic pollution is now considered as a great threat to the future generation of the country. Bangladesh has emerged as the most vulnerable palace with regards to Arsenic pollution as the extent and spread of the problem have taken a serious turn. We have already become the victims of Arsenic poisoning and are pushing our next generation in to a more dangerous situation. So, this is the high time to be aware of the problem and take steps to combat the Spread of Arsenic pollution. Otherwise, nothing could stop this silent killer.

Arsenic Victims
Arsenic Victims
Arsenic Victims

Arsenic affected Areas of Bangladesh

Arsenic Affected Areas of Bangladesh
Source: Dainichi Consultant Inc, Japan

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80 Million People at Risk

Some 80 million people of Bangladesh are now at risk of Arsenic contamination. This was revealed from the latest survey jointly conducted by DCH and SOES. After analyzing the data, experts opined that groundwater Arsenic contamination and sufferings of peoples in Bangladesh may be the biggest Arsenic calamity in the world.

The survey was carried out in 230 thanas of 64 out of 64 districts of the country. Arsenic at alarming level was found in the water of 54 districts. Some 80 million people reside in these districts having a total area of 97390 square kilometer. May be not all of the 80 million people are drinking Arsenic contaminated water regally, But it can be said that they are a always at risk of being affected with Arsenic. Arsenic contamination in ground water was found in various countries of the world. But there is no instance of such a huge population facing the risk of Arsenic pollution.

Till September 2000, the water samples from 30,000 tube-wells 7,000 human tissues (hair, nail) and urine samples from 2830 people were tested in laboratory under the DCH-SOES survey. the presence of high Arsenic was detected in 55 percent samples of water,94 percent samples of urine. This reveals a disastrous situation regarding Arsenic pollution in Bangladesh.

Some 210 samples of skin-scales were also tested in the SOES laboratory in which high level of fixed of recommended value of Arsenic of skin-scales it is difficult to say anything about the nature of Arsenic poisoning on human body through skin.

It should be mention here that four districts are still out of survey on Arsenic pollution. These are Rangamati, Bandarban, Khagrachhari and Cox's Bazar.

The WHO recommended value of Arsenic concentration in water is 0.01 mg/l, while the maximum permissible limit for Bangladesh and India has been fixed at 0.05 mg/l In the DCH-SOES survey, less than .01 mg/l Arsenic concentration was detected in 51 percent or 2803 out of 6101 water samples while above the WHO recommended value (0.01 mg/l was found in the rest 73 percent of 3298 sample on the other hand, Arsenic concentration at less than maximum permissible limit 0.05 mg/l was detected in 62 percent or 3783 samples, while above the limit was found in the rest 38 percent or 2318 water samples.

Arsenic concentration at higher level than the WHO recommended value be found in the tube-wells of 53 districts out of the 64 surveyed. Of these, the level of Arsenic presence exceeds the maximum permissible limit in the tube-wells water of 41 districts. In 11 districts, the level of Arsenic concentration was found more than the WHO recommended value, but less than the maximum permissible limit. That means, highest 0.05 mg/l Arsenic exists in the tube-wells water of these districts. These areas can be considered moderately safe. These 11 districts are Kurigram, Lalmonirhat, Rangpur, Bogra, Dhaka, Joypurhat, Gazipur, Borguna, Bhola, Sylhet and Habiganj. A total of 695 tube-wells were brought under investigation in these districts. Less than 0.01 mg/l Arsenic was found in 582 tube-wells (84 percent). The level of Arsenic concentration between 0.01 mg/l and 0.05 mg/l was in the rest 113 tube-wells (16 percent).

Besides, after testing the water of 328 tube-wells of 8 districts, the survey did not found alarming level of Arsenic. Arsenic was found less than 0.01 mg/l in these samples. These districts can be considered as completely safe from Arsenic pollution. These 8 districts are-Panchagar, Dinajpur, Gaibandha, Naogaon, Patuakhali and Moulavibazar.

Dangerous level (above 0.05 mg/l) of Arsenic was found in the water of 41 districts. These are: Nawabganj, Rajshahi, Pabna, Kushtia, Meherpur, Chuadanga, Jhenidah, Jessore, Sathkhira, Khulna, Bagerhat, Pirojpur, Rajbari, Magura, Chandpur, Noakhali, Luxmipur, Madaripur, Shariatpur, Narail, Barishal, Jhalakati, Gopalganj, Natore, Comilla, Manikganj, Munshiganj Feni, Narsingdi, Chittagong, Sherpur, Netrokona, Mymensingh, Jamalpur, Tangail, Kishoreganj, Sumamganj, Sirajganj, and Brahmanbaria.

The water of 5036 tube-wells were tested in these 41 districts of those, 38 percent or 1893 tube-wells were found having Arsenic at less than WHO recommended value. Arsenic at a level of upto 0.49 mg/l or less than the maximum permissible limit was found in 55 percent or 2760 samples. And the rest 2286 samples (45 percent) were found having above 0.05 mg/l Arsenic.

They survey in these 41 districts revealed a more dangerous fact. That is the presence of high level of Arsenic in the polluted water. The detected Arsenic level was from 0.01 mg/l to 1.0 mg/l, even more, in 1743 samples. Arsenic concentration more than 1.0 mg/l was found in 75 samples. Such a high concentration was not found even in the worst affected districts of the West Bengal.

According to Worlds Health Organization, more than 1.0 mg/l Arsenic in water may create a disastrous situation. This concentrations 100 times higher than the Who recommended value and 20 times higher than the maximum permissible limit.

Not only in the water samples. Arsenic at high level was found in 89 percent of the total 1758 hair samples tested in these districts. The normal amount of Arsenic in hair is less than l mg/kg. 98 percent of tested 1760 nail samples were detected having found contain Arsenic above the normal value. The normal content Arsenic in nail is 0.43 -1.08 mg/kg.

High level of Arsenic presence was also found in 95 percent urine samples out of the total 830 samples tested. The normal level of Arsenic presence in urine is between 0.01 mg/l and 0.05 mg/l. there is no recommended value of Arsenic in skin-scales. But while testing 210 skin samples, the DCH-SOES survey detected on an average 7.41 mg/kg Arsenic.

Out of the 41 districts, where Arsenic has been found above 0.05 mg/l, the DCH and SOES so far surveyed 22 districts for Arsenic patients. In 21 districts, they identified people suffering from Arsenic induced skin-lesions like Melanosis, leuco-melanosis, Keratosis, Hyper-keratosis, dorsum, non-petting oedema, gangrene, skin cancer etc. During the preliminary field survey conducted for last one and half year in 96 groundwater Arsenic contaminated villages in 44 thanas of 22 districts they found Arsenic patients in 93 villages in 21 districts. They examined at random 5664 people including children and out of them, 33.6 percent were found to have Arsenical skin lesions.

Arsenic Victims
Arsenic Victims
Arsenic Victims
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Statistics of Arsenic Calamity

Total Number of districts in Bangladesh
Total Area of Bangladesh
148,393 km2
Total Population of Bangladesh
120 million
GDP per capita (1998)
WHO arsenic drinking water standard
0.01 ppm
Maximum permissible limit of arsenic in drinking water of Bangladesh
0.05 ppm
Number of districts surveyed for arsenic contamination 
Number of districts having arsenic above maximum permissible limit 
Area of affected 59 districts
126,134 km2
Population at risk of the affected districts
75 million
Potentially exposed population
24 million
Number of patients suffering from arsenicosis
Total number of tubewells in Bangladesh
4 million
Total number of affected tubewells
1.12 million
Source: BBS, Dhaka Community Hospital, NIPSOM, DPHE.

Social Problems of the Arsenic Victims

The Arsenic contamination in the groundwater of Bangladesh is not only the reason of serious health hazards for the people, but also the cause of a widespread social problem. The rural people due to their ignorance, superstitions and lack of information, consider the diseases caused by Arsenic a "Gazab" of Allah or a curse of nature. They maintain safe distance from the Arsenic affected people as they think that the disease is like leprosy or other contagious disease. For this reason, the villages affected with Arsenic contamination have become almost isolated from the others.

Nobody wants to come to contact with the Arsenic-affected people. The affected people are bared to come out from their houses. One or such victims, Narayan Shill of Faridpur districts, has become isolated from others as all his social activities have virtually come to an end. For the last 15 years, he has been suffering from Arsenicosis. His hands and feet are full of ulcers. Some of his toes were amputated due to gangrene caused by Arsenic poisoning Narayan Shill cannot move freely in his villages, as the villagers do not allow him to enter into the social places. Even he does not have the right to enter into the tea stall in the village. If he wants to take tea. He has to bring a cup of his own and take tea to his home. He cannot sit there with other people. Two young daughters of Narayan Shill are also affected with Arsenic. Thus, the whole shill family has become separated from the society. The villagers think that all of them were attacked by leprosy or something like that.

Narayan shill did not commit any offence. But he has to fell victim of isolation from the society as like other Arsenic patients in the country. Neighbors do not even allow the Arsenic patients to use the water of their tube-wells. The affected children are varied to enter into their schools. The adults are not allowed to move freely at markets work places, even at the chambers of doctors. With deterioration of their condition, the patients gradually loss their ability to work and thus they feel into poverty.

Arsenic pollution create serious social problems in the family relations in the rural areas. It is difficult to arrange marriage for a young girl affected by Arsenic. Some affected housewives are divorced by their husbands, and even forcibly sent to their paternal home with children.

Most Most of the people of village Samta of Jessore district are affected by Arsenicosis. The village now turned into an isolated place. Nobody wants to marry any man or women of this village. A large number of families were broken up due to Arsenic poisoning. Nobody tries to realize the fact that the diseases caused by nature. This is nothing but a man made disaster.

A lot of examples may be mentioned here on the social problems created by Arsenic contamination in water. Anjuara Khatun of village Khokshapur in Kushtia district is concerned with her skin condition as it is becoming rough like the skin of snake. She feels embarrassed while mixing in the society and tries to keep herself away from others.

The husbands of Sajeda of village Khimirdiar of same district, wanted to divorce her as skin was pigmented with the effect of Arsenic poisoning. But ironically her husband was also affected by Arsenic and their family survived from a possible break-up. Ambia, Shefali, Rupban, Rupban, Rupali, Fuljan, Shilpi, Biliis and some other girls of the same village were affected with Arsenic. Their parents or guardians are concerned about their marriage and future.

Generally, the women community of Bangladesh is a backward class of society and the victims of discrimination. Moreover, the Arsenic poisoning emerged as a major problem for them. It is creating social problems mainly for the rural women.

In fear of social problem, some affected people feel hesitated to express their disease. Even they do not want to tell it to doctors. In some cases, the patients preferred to be unidentified. The problem is more serious in the case of children. The entrance of affected children in schools becomes restrict. Some of them may at last get the opportunity to go to school. But they also fell victims of avoidance from their friends and classmates.

Due to illiteracy, superstitions and lack of proper motivational program at both government and non-governmental levels, the Arsenic problem has been creating serious crisis in the rural Bangladesh. The affected people are becoming the victims of cruelty in the society. If there was proper motivational levels, the Arsenic problem has been creating serious crisis in the rural Bangladesh. The affected people are becoming the victims of cruelty in the society. If there was proper motivational campaign, the rural people would not have thought that the Arsenic is the curse of nature or it is a contagious disease as they think about leprosy. At the same time, such superstition would not have gripped the common villages and the Arsenic victims would not have to face such a social crisis.

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» Dhaka Community Hospital.
» Dainichi Consultant, Inc., Gifu, Japan
» A Preliminary Status Report on Arsenic Problems in Groundwater of Bangladesh, SOES, Jadavpur University, Calcutta, India, May 1996.
» The Arsenic Disaster and Dhaka Community Hospital, DCH Report to the seminar on "Arsenic Disaster in Bangladesh Environment", January 6, 1997
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